Getting lost in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on March 6, 2013

Tucked between La Rambla and Via Laietana, El Barri Gotic is Barcelona’s answer to Madrid’s historical centre. Not as large as the capital’s equivalent, neither as pretentious, yet Barcelona’s Old Quarter is equally impressive and perhaps more pleasurable to explore. Wandering around its narrow alley-like winding streets without map in hand is synonymous with getting lost several times… but, persisting on your way along history-steeped backstreets and quiet intriguing lanes is a guarantee of finding a fair share of hidden historical treasures that would otherwise remain undisclosed. Joining a group on a walking tour is tantamount to getting a general overview of the place with ease but more often than not without having enough time to relish the preferred details. Losing yourself in an evocative place like this, particularly early in the morning when visitors are still few is an asset rather than a disadvantage because you get the chance to discover for yourself odd attractions that are not listed in guidebooks, no matter how detailed a particular guidebook is. Losing yourself in an unspoilt place of character like this gives you in addition a better chance to get a nostalgic feeling for times gone by. Where else can you experience such a plethora of amazing medieval architecture? Where else can you encounter so many quirky details cached within such a small quarter?

I wandered around Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter several times in a matter of five days, obviously losing on other places of interest I wished to visit as well. Every time I waded the area to visit a particular attraction (be it a museum, an art gallery or a tapas bar of my choice), I got stuck to the place with such a captivating addiction that I stayed on trekking around, sightseeing and peeping into shops until dark. This feeling of enthralment seems to emanate from the intimate, almost homely character of the place… but, other visitors I met on the road seem to have other reasons as well. One thing is definitely certain: this astonishing little district of Barcelona is a magic haunt for visitors of all ages, whatever their tastes and preferences.

Heading the list of the most popular eye-catching attractions is the city’s glorious Gothic Cathedral. Known by locals as La Seu, it is a huge elevated building that competes for grandness and potency with the most impressive cathedrals of France, including those at Reims, Amiens and Rouen. Like many buildings of distinction, La Seu was not completed in one phase but in two. Blended harmoniously in an attempt to grace its exterior setup, two distinctive architectural styles bear witness to the two widely-separated epochs of its construction. The first phase lasting for almost two centuries saw the Cathedral emulating a particular Catalan-Gothic style, a basic and sober form of Gothic typical of Spanish churches built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. More elaborate, more beautiful and manifestly grander is the work completed during the second phase when a more sophisticated Gothic style was adopted. After going around the Cathedral to pore over its exterior, one can easily make out that the northwest façade is the cream of the Cathedral’s outside architecture. Created four centuries later, graced with a central seventy-metre high spire, laced with amazing gargoyles and stone intricacies and decorated profusely with saintly statues, this is unquestionably the most outstanding opus amidst the Cathedral’s Gothic features.

The Cathedral’s soaring interior is a feast for the eyes. A broad central nave illuminated with rows of stained-glass windows is separated from the side aisles by two opposing chains of elegant fluted pillars, so fine, slender and delicate that one is amazed how these can take the weight of the enormous roof. The focus of attention inside is the richly decorated central choir, an exquisite layout of polychrome fine-timber stalls finished with intricate decorations and piles of chiselled features that look as new, although smothered here and there with visible patches of dust.

A walk along the side aisles reveals an amazing number of side-by-side chapels, each one furnished with a remarkable altarpiece, a wealth of arabesque ornamentation and lots of gilt. On the right side of the main entrance is the Cathedral’s largest chapel, its focus of interest being the figure of the Crucified Christ above the altar. Known as Christ of Lepanto on account of its legendary correlation with the defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto, it is a much revered icon and consequently the chapel is always replete with believers. On the same side but closer to the high altar are the wood-and-brass twin coffins of Count Ramon Berenguer the Elder and his wife Almodis. More attractive are the colourful coats of arms that decorate the wall right above the coffins. The marble panels under the coffins contain inscriptions with historical information about the interred within, but alas… they need decoding.

Right in front of the main altar, a dozen or so steps lead down to the crypt, an underground vaulted catacomb that contains the remarkable alabaster sarcophagus of Santa Eulalia, the thirteen-year old fourth-century Spanish martyr and co-patron saint of Barcelona. Immortalized in numerous statues and street names scattered throughout the city, Santa Eulalia is Barcelona’s most celebrated saint, although homage to the saint seems to stem more out of legend than belief and devotion. When visiting the crypt, probe into the three panels of sculptured figures that adorn her coffin. These narrate in pictorial detail her gruesome life and martyrdom.

Back in the Cathedral right of the main altar is the doorway to a secluded Gothic cloister that dates back to the fourteenth century. Its vaulted passageway is a wonder of Gothic architecture. Overlooking a graceful shady garden filled with palm and orange trees (and a legendary gaggle of geese), this oasis of worn-out stone slabs houses a number of small chapels (more beautiful than the gaudy ones in the Cathedral) and a remarkable chapterhouse complete with ceiling frescoes and fine-timber benches.

Before you depart, take the minuscule elevator from the Cathedral’s left side to the roof. The view stretches out to Tibidabo Hill and Barcelona’s sandy beaches.

Appropriately named Placa de la Seu, the vibrant square in front of the Cathedral turns into an arena of activity whenever the weather allows. Lined with souvenir stalls and a dozen or so coffee shops, this is one area that will reward those who hang around with a good laugh or at least a smile. While professional troupes of young dancers dressed in traditional folk costumes dance the sardana (a traditional Catalan frolicking dance) to the applause of the crowds, groups of sixty and seventy-year olds mix in, in an attempt to show off their athletic skills and bouncing potential. If the possibility of making a fool of yourself in public does not discourage you, then you can as well join in the merrymaking.

Northeast of Cathedral square is Placa del Rei, an atmospheric open space surrounded with a centuries-old Gothic ensemble of buildings that formerly constituted the palace of the medieval Kings of Aragon. The main attraction here is the exquisite fourteenth-century banquet hall known as the Salo del Tinell. This masterpiece of Catalan-Gothic architecture is devoid of elaborate decorations or finesse but the cluster of pillared semi-circular arches that support its enormous wooden roof is unquestionably an architectural achievement worthy of note. On the right side of the stairway exactly in the corner of the square is the entrance to the Capella Reial de Santa Agata, a fourteenth-century palatine chapel crowned with a graceful octagonal bell tower. Nothing extraordinary inside but the Epiphany altarpiece is amazingly superb and demands more than a passing glance.

Also on Placa del Rei is Casa Padellas, a late-Gothic mansion that houses Barcellona’s excellent History Museum. Once you get inside, a one-floor elevator takes you down to the streets of Roman Barcelona, an excavated area that stretches out under Placa del Rei as far as the Cathedral. With a bit of imagination and a lot of visual aids, one can figure out with ease what a Roman settlement looked like in the second century. The underground walkways expose an abundance of remains that were excavated from the area.

The handful of streets southwest of Cathedral square is an intact reminder of fifteenth-century Barcelona. Characterful and brimming with centuries-old features is Carrer del Bisbe Irurita, a narrow asphalt-covered passageway cut halfway by a flamboyant bridge that connects the Palau de la Generalitat with the newly restored Casa dels Canonges. A right turn on Carrer de Santa Lucia reveals more outstanding old-world architecture, the remodelled Casa de l’Ardiaca being a prime example of a Gothic building that admirably incorporates lots of Renaissance ornamental features. Although the building is not open to the public, one can still peep into its cloister-like courtyard where more architectural features worthy of note predominate.
Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter)
La Rambla To Via Laietana
Barcelona, Spain, 08002

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